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Tallinn, A beautiful city with so much history


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This was originally published on Slow Travel and covers a week we spent in Estonia in May 2007 before it joined the European Union. There was a feeling of anticipation and excitement about this.

The website with all our pictures is here.


Michael had always been intrigued by the three Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia and they had been on his ‘wish list’ for years. We decided it was about time we did something about it, so bought the guide books, sent off for literature and began to read. We looked at booked tours but quickly discounted them as most seem to scamper through all three countries in a week, which wasn’t what we wanted.

As we only had a week available, we decided to concentrate on one country and settled for Estonia as the quality and amount of information sent out by their tourist board was way ahead of the other countries.

We booked a city break through Regent Travel. Initially we wanted to stop in one of the hotels in the Old Town, but they were all were full for the week we wanted, so Regent suggested we we use l'Ermitage
on Toompuistee, immediately below Toompea. This turned out to be a brilliant location as it was close to the Old Town, convenient for city transport, modern and quiet. It is a very stylish hotel and was spotlessly clean. Meals were good and we would happily stop there again.

We flew Air Estonia from Gatwick and arranged for a car to pick us up a the airport and take us to the hotel. Going back we used a taxi booked through the hotel and checked with reception what was a reasonable fare. There are reports of taxi drivers overcharging tourists.

Apart from a day trip to Lahemaa National Park booked through the Tourist Office, we spent the rest of the time in and around Tallinn. We bought two Tallinn cards, each valid for three days and excellent value. They give free admission to all the museums, free public transport and free travel on the three circular tourist bus routes which run hourly and have a commentary in different languages.

Tallinn old town is made up of two parts; Toompea which is at the top of the hill and was where the aristocracy lived and the Lower Town where the tradesmen lived.

The old town is compact and easily walkable but you do need flat shoes as there are many cobbled streets. It is surrounded by the urban sprawl of the new town with high rise buildings. It could be anywhere. We drove through but did not stop.

We were lucky with the weather. We left Gatwick with grey skies and rain and arrived in Tallinn to brilliant blue skies and sunshine. Even though it was mid May, spring was only just arriving and the trees were just coming into leaf. By the end of the week it was like early summer. The trees were in full leaf and all the blossom was out.

A bit of historical background

Estonia has had a very checkered history and been controlled by several different foreign powers, all of whom have left an impression on the city. The Danes were the first, followed by the Swedes and finally the Russians in the 17thC. In the Middle Ages, the Lower Town was established as a major trading centre by German merchants and the Hanseatic League. After the first world war, Estonia became independent. It was invaded by the Germans in 1940 and finally ‘liberated’ by the Russians at the end of the war. They stayed and Estonia became part of the Soviet empire. All land was taken into collective ownership and it was a very repressive regime. Land owners or any one who complained was sent to Siberian labour camps. Few returned. Secret files were kept on everyone. Tour guides said if they had shown visitors around they were interrogated afterwards as to what questions the visitors asked and who they spoke to. A lot of Russian labour was imported. The Russians had bombed and destroyed a lot of the old town area in 1944 but to give them their due it has been rebuilt exactly as it was. Any new building took place outside the old town area.

In 1991/2 Estonia gained independence. A law was passed that anyone in a position of authority had to speak fluent Estonian. The Russian ruling classes were unable to keep their jobs and moved back to Russia. A lot of the labourers stayed but as they didn’t speak Estonian they were only employed in the low paid menial jobs. Many did not want (or were unable) to learn Estonian and now form a lower under class who live in the 1960s concrete blocks and are very deprived.

All children have to learn Estonian at school but the Russians kept their own schools and all lessons were in Russian. Go ahead Russians now try and make sure their children go to Estonian schools.

At Independence there was little currency available and people were only allowed to exchange a set number of roubles for Estonian Krone - regardless of how wealthy you were. The rest of the money was effectively valueless.

We saw old Russian women begging outside the Russian Orthodox cathedral or selling bunches of flowers they had picked. All of these grow wild; lily of the valley, cowslips and forget me nots. We were approached by 2 old gentlemen who tried to sell us a Russian coin. ‘very valuable’, with a picture of Lenin on it.

Land ownership and houses are being returned - as long as you are able to prove your right to the property or land. In many cases there is a dispute which means the house gradually falls into disrepair as no-one wants to spend money on it unless they are absolutely sure it belongs to them. There are large numbers of beautiful old houses throughout Tallinn which are still unclaimed or there are arguments over. Even if ownership is proved, some people cannot afford the cost of refurbishment and if the house is rented, they are unable to put up the rent until it is refurbished. A vicious circle. Apparently Swedish property developers have started to move in and buy up property which they refurbish and then sell on at ‘Swedish’ prices.

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Tallinn old town is made up of two parts - TOOMPEA which is at the top of the hill and was where the aristocracy lived and the LOWER TOWN which is where the tradesmen lived. Both parts were surrounded by town walls and turrets.

There are a series of good viewing platforms around the walls which give views across the Lower Town.

Originally the walls were protected by a moat but all that is left of that now is a small lake in open woodland and grassland below Toompea.

Relationships between Toompea and the lower town were not always friendly. The only access between the two was through Pikk Jalg, a strong fortified gateway which was locked at night.

Horses, wagons and carriages travelled along Pikk jalg St (Long Leg).

Pedestrians used Luhike jalg (Short Leg) which is much steeper with steps.

Toopea is the oldest part Tallinn and is still the centre of Government. Many of the stylish old buildings are now government offices or foreign embassies. This is a pleasant place to wander in the evenings when it is quiet.

There had been a wooden fortification on top of the hill in the C9th. The Danes conquered the city in 1291 and part of their buildings can be seen behind the castle. Tall Herman’s Tower dates from C15th. The Estonian flag is raised to the top of Tall Herman Tower at 7am and taken down sunset accompanied by the National Anthem.

The splendid pink painted TOOMPEA CASTLE dates from 1770 when it was built as the seat of power for the Russian government.

Stenbock's House was built as a court and prison in the late C18th for the Russian Government which couldn't pay the bill. Stenbock, the builder, kept it as a family residence. It is now the home of Estonia's Prime Minister.

TOOMKIRK (Lutheran Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary) is the oldest church in Tallinn. From the outside this is a fairly plain white building with a dark mock Russian dome. Building work in the C13th after the Danish invasion to replace the original wooden church. It was enlarged in the C15-17th and there was a major rebuild after fire in 1684. The tower is 1779. It was the religious centre for the Baltic German community and the burial site of German and Swedish noblemen from Renaissance to C19th. Unfortunately no photographs are allowed inside the church. There are glass enclosed family boxes for wealthy families which separated them from pews of ordinary folk. Their coats of arms adorn the walls of the nave and choir.

The ALEXANDER NEVSKY CATHEDRAL (Russian Orthodox CAthedral) opposite the Castle dominates Toompea and was built in the late 1890s as a symbol of Russian power. It was disliked by many EStonians as a symbol of Russian power. When Estonia became independent after the first world war there was talk of pulling the building down. Fortunately they didn’t.

The mosaic decoration above the doorway gleams golden in the sunlight. Inside is even more elaborate, but unfortunately no pictures are allowed. There were icons and religious pictures everywhere. The first morning we went in, a service had just started. It was the first time we’d experienced an Orthodox service. The priest was out of sight behind the altar screen. You just heard his disembodied voice - a bit like the voice of God booming out. The ‘chantor’ stood in front of the screen and sang the service. It was quite hypnotic. There were no seats and people stood during the service. It was strange as there was a steady stream of people arriving and leaving throughout the service. Men must remove hats but women must cover their head with a scarf.


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Lower Town

The LOWER TOWN was developed by the German merchants and has a big central square with the Town Hall.

It is surrounded by a city wall which is still nearly intact. Medieval citizens had to do a stint of guard duty. As an annual exercise they had to gather on wall in full armour and shake weapons as a sign of military strength. There are fairy tale turrets along the walls and it is possible to walk along it in places.

Originally there were six gateways. Only two remain. Viru leads to the new town. The Great Coastal Gateway controlled the route to the harbour and was overlooked by Fat Margaret Tower with it’s cannons.

MUURIVAHE runs along city wall. This stretch is referred to as the ”Knitting wall” as elderly Russians have stalls selling knitted woollen sweaters, gloves, socks and other handicrafts at very reasonable prices.

The TOWN HALL was built in 1370 then rebuilt 30 years later this is one of the best preserved Gothic town halls in Northern Europe. Council members were selected from the Great Guild and were responsible for running the town. This also included responsibility for determining dress code, a source of conflict with members' wives who often considered the code to be well behind current fashion.

On top is a weather vane of OLD THOMAS. Thomas was a guard who was too poor to compete in a major archery contest. However when everyone failed to hit the target Thomas tried and succeeded to great acclaim and honour. He later undertook many heroic deeds. This is a modern copy. The original from 1530 is in the Town Hall Museum.

The buildings around the square are now mostly cafes and eating places. There are lots of narrow cobbled streets radiating from Town Hall Square. Locals fly along cobble streets in high heels but tourist guides recommend you take a pair of sturdy flat shoes.

Buildings are either wood or stone. Living areas were on the ground floor with storage above. Some of the houses still have the crane which was used to haul goods up.

Some houses still have their Ettic stones outside the door which had the crest of the house owner carved on them.

There is an exhibition of some of these in the DOMINICAN MONASTERY. This is tucked away off Vene and the old buildings are an oasis of peace and quiet

We enjoyed walking round the old town, looking at the buildings and visiting many of the churches and museums. There are no high rise buildings in old Tallinn so the church spires dominate the scene.

NIGULISTE (St Nicholas Church) was built for German merchants who were invited to Tallinn in 1230. This preceded the building of the town wall so the church had a defensive function at first. The church was rebuilt in the 15thC but destroyed by a Soviet air raid of 1944. It has since been restored to the 15thC design but never reconsecrated. It is now a museum dedicated to church art and a concert hall. Fortunately most of the treasures had been removed before the bombing and are now on display.

OLEVISTE KIRIK (st Olav’s Church) had the tallest spire in Europe when it was built in 1500.

This was the only church in Tallinn that allowed photography inside the church.

It is possible to climb up the tower for views across Lower Tallinn to the Baltic Sea and the the high rise buildings of the new town.



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KADRIORG is a suburb of Tallinn, reached either by bus or on the tram.

Peter the Great visited Tallinn and liked the area so much, he decided to build a summer palace here. The area was original bare with few trees or buildings. A wooded parkland area was designed to look like a natural landscape of meadows with forest groves, a lake (Swan Lake) and formal gardens. Oak, lilac and horse chestnut trees planted. He intended it to be an area to be enjoyed by the local population. The palace was not finished at the time of his death and was never used again by the Russian royal family after a fire in 1750. However the area near the palace and park became popular as the place to live by the wealthy.

The PALACE building is an elegant pink and white building surrounded by formal gardens, and is now a major art museum.

The Main Hall extends through 2 floors and one of best examples of Russian baroque architecture, with stucco decorations and grey and white painted walls and ceilings.

Throughout the palace are examples of large C18th tiled stoves.

In the 1930s Kadriorg became the residence of the Head of State. A banquet hall was added and rooms renovated.

It now houses the ESTONIAN FOREIGN ART MUSEUM with examples of C16-18thCDutch masters and German panel painting, C18-19th,Russian portrait painting, C17-19th miniature portraits on bone or copper plates and a small collection of C20th Finnish painting. There are also sculptures, furniture, porcelain, glass, and metalwork from C17th-20th.

Although Peter the Great never saw the Palace completed he lived in a small cottage in the grounds when he visited Tallinn. PETER’S COTTAGE is the only example of a C17thC summer cottage in Estonia. It was originally one storey building with a hipped roof, containing 4 living rooms, kitchen, hall and lavatory. Later a second storey was added. The building has been restored and is now a museum furnished with articles belonged to Peter and other period items.

He also built splendid wooden houses for the palace workers and these can still be seen in the grounds and surrounding streets.

Across the flower gardens at the back of the palace is the PRESIDENTIAL RESIDENCE. This was built in 1930 as an office block and the back of the building is very plain compared to the front. The president of Estonia now lives here and the front door is guarded by 2 soldiers with rifles.


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From Kadriorg we caught the bus to Pirita, a few miles outside Tallinn and the location for Olympic sailing events in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. There is a long sandy beach popular with holiday makers.

Across the road are the remains of ST BIRGITTA’S CONVENT. This was built 1407 by wealthy Tallinn merchants but destroyed by Ivan the Terrible’s Army in 1577. It housed both monks and nuns but they were strictly segregated. Only the walls are left standing but they are a delightful place to wander round. A new convent has been built near by.

A few miles beyond is the TV TOWER which was built as a symbol of Russian pride for the Olympics. It is just over 1000’ tall and can be seen for miles.

It has beautiful stained glass windows.

There is a lift to the round area at the top which has a restaurant and amazing views. On a clear day you can see Finland. Unfortunately the Estonians don’t hold it in such esteem, it is ignored by most tourists and it is beginning to look a bit sad.

We also visited the BOTANIC GARDENS. It was too early in the year for many flowers. There are pleasant walks through a wooded landscape with lakes. According to the literature, it contains examples of nearly all the plants found in Estonia. Unfortunately there were few labels. There is a short nature trail but little information about it. The greenhouse is modern and containes examples of palms and other tropical plants. We had been looking forward to this visit but were disappointed.



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Estonia Open Air Museum at Rocca al Mare

The OPEN AIR MUSEUM is at Rocca al Mare, reached by a short bus trip from the town centre. We spent two days here. The first day we walked around looking and taking photographs. There were no signs in English and staff dressed in local costume in the buildings had little English. We bought a guide book in English as we left and read it when we got back to the hotel. We went back the next day to look at all the things we had missed.

There are about a hundred buildings reassembled around the site from the main geographical regions of Estonia. Most of them are old farms with their outbuildings. Not only do they illustrate the different styles of architecture, they also show the development of the buildings from the C18th to C20th. Nearly all of them were made of wood with thatch roofs. Each farms was surrounded by a fence which enclosed the farm yard with well and buildings. In later farms there was a fence across the yard separating clean and dirty (animal) areas.

The main building was called the barn house. It was made up of 2 main rooms. The ‘kiln room’ had a huge stove in it and was the main living area for the winter months, doubling up as a drying room for the grain in the autumn. In some buildings it was the sauna as well.

The early buildings had no chimney so smoke had to find it’s way out of the roof.

Next to the kiln room was the huge threshing shed used to store machinery and the horses lived in there in the winter.

There were a few smaller, unheated rooms which were sleeping quarters and work areas for the family. Furnishings were sparse and homemade.

In summer the kiln room was too hot to use, so the farm had a separate small building which was used as the summer kitchen. The earliest ones were small, basic teepees. Later ones were larger and might include a sauna.


There is also an example of a cotter’s cottage. Cotters were landless peasants renting houses from estates or farmers. They may have had a small patch for a few crops but were usually too poor to own a cow or horse. The building has an unheated work/bedroom, smoke room and stores.



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Estonia Open Air Museum at Rocca al Mare continued...

There were separate sheds for the cows, pigs and sheep as well as granaries and storage barns.

There were separate rooms for the grain, butter and dairy goods and also a clothes store, so clothing could be stored away from the smoke in the barn house. During the summer months the girls would sleep here. Buildings like this were still in use in the countryside until about 50 years ago.

There are also examples of other rural buildings including a watermill and windmills.

There is a very primitive Moravian prayer hut

The C17th wooden chapel has tin wreathes commemorating men lost at sea.

There is a small rural fire station.

The wooden school dates from the C19th and includes living quarters for the school master.



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Lahemaa National Park

We did a day trip to Lahemaa National Park booked through the Tourist Office. This is about 60 miles northeast of Tallinn. It was created in 1971 but access was denied to Estonians and there were very few foreign visitors because of Soviet concern about security along the coast. We went on one of the daily tours - just four of us in all, apparently eight is a large number for the trip - to see a little of the Estonian countryside.

The guide was knowledgeable and prepared to talk openly about life in Soviet times and more recently.

First stop was at the remains of some VIKING GRAVES at Rebala Kaitseala. There was a circle of stones enclosing a rectangular area.

We then had a brief stop at a C15th DEFENCE TOWER at Kiiu which was built by the Danes against hostile locals. It now houses a museum and restaurant.

LEHEMAA NATIONAL PARK is an area of woodland and lakes with a few isolated farms.

We visited PALMSE MANOR, a beautiful 1780s wooden building in it's own grounds with greenhouse, distillery (now a hotel) and small tea house for use by the family, which looks a bit like a bandstand.

Inside the manor is beautifully furnished with wood floors, chandeliers and tiled stoves.

We had a picnic lunch at the small fishing village of ALTJA on the Baltic coast. This is an area of flat marshland with reed beds.

After lunch, we visited SAGADI MANOR on the way back to Tallinn built between 1750-95. This again was elegantly furnished with pictures on the walls.

All the pictures from this holiday can be found here.

Katt B

10+ Posts
Thank you for posting this wonderful report, Eleanor. It's perfect timing for me - I'm going to Tallinn the week after next for four days, then on to Helsinki for three days.


10+ Posts
Thank You Eleanor! I just came to SE this morning after Pauline's poke email and voila, a trip report on Tallin. I just booked ticket for Helsinki for two weeks, end of May/early June and just started my research. Initially I had Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on my radar--we will take the ferry over from Helsinki, so one week in Helsinki and one across the gulf. But after initial research, I too have decide to do only Estonia and you just reaffirmed my decision!


1000+ Posts
I hope you enjoy Estonia as much as we did. Tallinnis a beautifukl city and gret fun just to wander round. We left Manchester on a dull qnd damp day and arrived to full sunshine in Tallinn.

I'd also read Pauline's email today and it sums up Slow Europe perfectly. The quality of the advice is way ahead of other forums.


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